Microsoft on Tuesday announced a new variant of Windows 11, called Windows 11 SE, that's designed for students and can run on ultra-affordable laptops. In other words, Windows 11 SE is a Chrome OS competitor, and the first product to run it will be the $249 Surface Laptop SE.
While Microsoft and partner manufacturers have come out with plenty of budget Windows laptops in the past, the Surface Laptop SE (along with promised devices from Dell and HP coming as soon as next year) is more competitively priced with Chromebooks than previous models. The Surface Laptop SE comes with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and an 11.6-inch, 1,366x768-pixel display, putting it on par with similarly priced Chrome OS devices.
The competition between Google and Microsoft is among the fiercest in the tech industry, spanning markets like cloud computing, productivity software, search engines and desktop and laptop operating systems. Though the two have vastly disparate business models in many respects, they often compete for coveted consumer and enterprise market share and have often and very publicly butted heads over issues like privacy, cybersecurity and government contract work. A five-year written peace agreement to keep simmering tensions in check between the two titans expired earlier his year, signaling increased competition was on the horizon.
Chrome OS has long been an invaluable way for Google to siphon away Microsoft's consumer base of Windows and Office users with low-cost laptops and free software. Microsoft has tried and failed to mitigate Google's encroachment over the years, most recently with the stripped down Windows 10X variant once designed for dual-screen hardware that ultimately didn't survive the pandemic and its unprecedented shifts in computing habits. Windows 11 SE, however, feels like a more fully formed strike at one of Google's core businesses than we've seen from Microsoft in quite some time.
Microsoft also intends for students to use Windows 11 SE with Microsoft 365 licenses, helping boost its software business and cutting into the advantage Google has gained from promoting its competing productivity web apps like Google Docs and Google Sheets to students through Chrome OS. Microsoft is also touting that Windows 11 SE devices can install other third-party desktop apps, while Chrome OS users are mostly stuck with poorly optimized Android apps.
In 2020, Chrome OS had a 10% share of the global PC market, while Windows had an 83% share, according to Gartner. But Microsoft is now specifically targeting the market of students who, in the last 18 months, transitioned to hybrid or remote learning during the pandemic, a trend that boosted laptop sales across the board and greatly benefitted low-cost manufacturers selling devices running Google's OS. No wonder Microsoft didn't want to be left out.